Subject-auxiliary Inversion - Structural Analyses

Structural Analyses

The structural analysis of subject-auxiliary inversion, and of inversion in general, challenges many theories of sentence structure, in particular, those theories based on phrase structure. The challenge stems from the fact that these theories posit the existence of a finite verb phrase constituent. The standard declarative sentence is divided into two immediate constituents, a subject NP and a predicate VP. When subject-auxiliary inversion occurs, it appears to violate the integrity of the predicate. The canonical predicate is underlined in the following sentences:

a. Larry has started working.
b. Has Larry started working?
a. Susan will listen to the music.
b. Will Susan listen to the music?

The finite VP predicate is a continuous sequence of words in the a-sentences. In the b-sentences in contrast, subject-auxiliary inversion breaks up the predicate. What this means is that in one sense or another, a discontinuity is present in the structure.

One widespread means of addressing this difficulty is to posit movement. The underlying word order of the b-sentences is deemed to be that shown in the a-sentences. To arrive at the inversion word order in the b-sentences, movement is assumed. The finite verb moves out of its base position after the subject into a derived position in front of the subject.

By moving out of its base position and into the derived position at the front of the clause, the integrity of the predicate VP constituent can be maintained, since it is present at an underlying level of sentence structure.

An alternative analysis does not acknowledge the binary division of the clause into subject NP and predicate VP, but rather it places the finite verb as the root of the entire sentence and views the subject as switching to the other side of the finite verb. No discontinuity is perceived. Dependency grammars are likely to pursue this sort of analysis. The following dependency trees illustrate how this alternative account can be understood:

These trees show the finite verb as the root of all sentence structure. The hierarchy of words remains the same across the a- and b-trees. If movement occurs at all, it occurs rightward (not leftward); the subject moves rightward to appear as a post-dependent of its head, which is the finite auxiliary verb.

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